Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Monday announced a plan to introduce comprehensive "emergency legislation" designed to end unnecessary separations of illegal immigrant children from their parents.
The bill, an answer to President Trump's call for a congressional solution to the situation, would double the number of immigration judges to 750 and mandate that illegal immigrant families be kept together, unless there has been "aggravated criminal conduct" or threat of harm to the children, according to Cruz's office.
The new legislation would also authorize new temporary shelters for immigrant families, and provide for expedited resolution of asylum claims within 14 days.
"All Americans are rightly horrified by the images we are seeing on the news, children in tears pulled away from their mothers and fathers," Cruz said. "This must stop. Now."
But, Cruz added, his Democratic counterparts have taken the wrong approach on the issue.
"The answer is not what congressional Democrats are proposing: simply releasing illegal aliens and returning to the failed policy of 'catch and release,'" Cruz said. "Rather, we should fix the backlog in immigration cases, remove the legal barriers to swift processing, and resolve asylum cases on an expedited basis.
"While these cases are pending, families should stay together. Children belong with their mothers and fathers."
On Monday, all 49 Senate Democrats announced their support for the The Keep Families Together Act, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
That bill has a different, even higher standard for separating kids at the border, and would generally only allow the practice if "there is evidence of parents abusing the children or children being trafficked." Under the Democrats' bill, "[s]eparation could only happen after consultation with a child welfare expert."
The Democrats' bill calls for an accountability report on asylum claims, but does not contain an equivalent to Cruz's provisions to accelerate the application process or to deploy more judges.
Under current law, adults can be separated from their families as soon as criminal proceedings against them are commenced.
The Trump administration's new "zero-tolerance" policy had led to an increase in these prosecutions.
"Kids need their moms and dads, and we can keep the families together while these cases are pending."
But the administration has consistently said that the so-called Flores consent decree -- crafted during former President Bill Clinton's administration -- is what prohibits them from keeping parents and children together during these prosecutions, by limiting how long children can remain in federal custody.
"Kids need their moms and dads and we can keep the families together while these cases are pending," Cruz said Monday.
But he reiterated that the problem is not entirely new.
"President Obama held tens of thousands of children in detention centers who came illegally as immigrants," Cruz said. "Now, when Obama was president, the Democrats didn’t think it was a problem. ... But regardless, it was a problem then, it’s a problem now."
Cruz's announcement came shortly after a dramatic press conference in which Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told a hostile White House press corps that Congress needed to act to ensure children were not separated from their parents.